The spectacular rock-cut caves at Undavalli near Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh are unique. In this cave complex, one can see layers of Buddhist, Jain and Hindu influence, telling the story of the evolution of faith in the region.
These caves were originally excavated through the rock face between the 4th and 5th centuries CE, and served as Buddhist monasteries or viharas for monks. During this time, Amaravathi, located around 35 km away, was a great centre of trade and commerce, attracting merchants from all over the world.
The faces sculpted into the entrance of the caves are believed to be those of donors – possibly rich merchants – who paid for the caves’ construction and upkeep. The features and attire of these donors are remarkable in their similarity to those found at the Buddhist cave complex in the Western Ghats, in places such as Karle, Bhaja and Kanheri near Mumbai.
However, with the decline of Buddhism from the 5th century CE onwards, the caves were occupied by Jain monks. The first floor of the main caves shows a resemblance to the Jain caves at Udayagiri and Khandagiri in Odisha.
It was under the Vishnukundin dynasty, which ruled the region between the 5th and the 7th centuries, that the caves were transformed into a Hindu cave complex. Originally vassals of the Vakatakas of Vidarbha (in present-day Maharashtra), the Vishnukundins established their independence around 420 CE, establishing their capital, first in present-day Amaravathi and then at Vijayawada.
It is during Vishnukundin reign that Hinduism saw a revival in the region. The earliest known temples in the region, were the cave temple complexes seen at Undavalli and Mogalarajapuram nearby.
While the caves are adorned all over with beautiful sculptures and life-like statues, the most spectacular sight is that of a 5-metre-long statue of Vishnu as Padmanabha in a reclining position, resting on the sheesh naag carved out of a single block of granite.
Even today, a visit to the Undavalli Caves is like flipping through the pages of a book, discovering the history of coastal Andhra Pradesh, layer by layer.